Buffets in the new normal

Restaurants have turned to a la carte buffets and reduced prices to keep diners coming back

Buffets - where diners help themselves to an array of dishes laid out as a spread - are no more, a casualty of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Even after dine-in was allowed again in phase two of the economy's reopening on June 19, they are still off the table.

The concept had been very popular with diners who packed such eateries, especially on weekends.

It also ensured a steady income stream for the establishments, with fixed prices guaranteeing a substantial minimum spending a person.

So while some buffet eateries such as Melt at The Mandarin Oriental Singapore, Edge at Pan Pacific Singapore, Carousel at Royal Plaza on Scotts and the mass-market Sakura Japanese buffet chain remain closed, others have reopened - but with their concepts tweaked to meet safety requirements.

Most adopt a model better known as a la carte buffet, where diners can order as much as they want from a menu for one price and the food is served to the table.

Seoul Garden, a chain of halal Korean barbecue restaurants with seven outlets here, used to offer only buffets. It now offers a la carte buffets for weekend lunch and daily dinner. For weekday lunch, only set meals are available.

Diners tick their choices on a chit and the raw ingredients are brought to the table. Previously, it was self-service from an array of food laid out in chillers.

At hotels such as Mandarin Orchard, Grand Hyatt, The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore and JW Marriott, the menu is embedded in QR codes to minimise contact.

Diners read the selection on their smartphones before placing their orders verbally with servers.

JW Marriott's Beach Road Kitchen also features roving "chefs-on-show" who go around with trolleys laden with cheeses, desserts or hot dishes like a salt-baked barramundi.

Diners point out what they want and the chefs plate it for them.

At The Line at Shangri-La Hotel Singapore, the chefs whip up dishes at the open food stations like before. But diners remain seated and make their orders via a digital menu.

One-Ninety Restaurant at Four Seasons Singapore, however, is sticking with its semi-buffet format, where appetisers and desserts are laid out while main courses are ordered from a menu.

What has changed, however, is that the spread is displayed behind transparent partitions.

Guests are accompanied one at a time by service staff to view and make their choices before returning to the table to wait for them to be served.

Even hotpot eateries that used to let customers mix their own dipping sauces from a condiment spread have stopped the practice.

The Beauty In The Pot chain, for example, offers a few sauce mixes, but diners can customise their own by telling the servers how they want them.

Hai Di Lao, a successful chain from China, does the same.

While it would seem that more service staff are required for this, it does not necessarily translate to extra costs for the restaurants.

Says a spokesman for JW Marriott: "Labour cost stays the same because of two factors - reshuffling of jobs and reduced dine-in capacity."

Similarly, the Four Seasons hotel says it did not have to increase manpower, but just had to do some reorganisation of its service team.

Seoul Garden, however, says labour cost has gone up by 20 per cent because of the extra hands needed to take orders and serve.

But any uptick in cost is also balanced out by savings from less food wastage because most of the hot food is cooked a la minute.

In view of this, some restaurants have reduced their prices slightly, partly to drum up interest as well.

Beach Road Kitchen, for example, now charges $88 for dinner instead of $90 and $108 for brunch, down from $118.

Orchard Cafe at Orchard Hotel, too, has cut prices by $20 for weekend lunch to $48, and $10 for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays to $78.

Diners are biting. Many of the hotels and restaurants The Sunday Times spoke to report brisk business, although revenues are down compared with pre-Covid-19 days because of reduced seating to meet social distancing rules of having tables at least 1m apart.

Beach Road Kitchen, for example, has halved its 200-person seating capacity and is about 80 per cent full on most days.

Orchard Cafe reported a full house over the last weekend, but its capacity has gone down from 207 to 100.

And Triple Three at the Mandarin Orchard has reduced its seats even more drastically, from 150 to 60. It is close to full every day.

The a la carte buffet model also appeals to diners in that the food looks better when plated by chefs and, being freshly cooked, often tastes better than what was previously left to sit in chafing dishes.

Mr Dominic Chu, who was at Beach Road Kitchen for dinner last week, was impressed by the new concept.

The 45-year-old bank administrator says: "Even though there seemed to be fewer dishes than before, there was still more than I could eat. And everything was plated very nicely.

"More importantly, the food tasted even better, especially the roasted ribeye that was so juicy."


A LA CARTE BUFFETS TO BOOK

ONE-NINETY RESTAURANT


PHOTO: GIN TAY

Where: Four Seasons Hotel Singapore, 190 Orchard Boulevard, tel: 6831-7250

Buffet hours: Noon to 2.30pm, 6 to 10.30pm

Price: $38 for semi-buffet lunch only; $48 for semi-buffet lunch and one choice of entree; $58 for semi-buffet Sunday brunch; price of daily semi-buffet dinner depends on choice of main course

What: The semi-buffet features salads, soups and desserts. Diners pick a main course from the menu, which has dishes such as Provencal seafood stew and Cantonese hor fun.  

THE LINE 


PHOTO: SHANGRI-LA SINGAPORE

Where: Shangri-La Hotel, Level 1, 22 Orange Grove Road, tel: 6213-4398

Buffet hours: Noon to 2.30pm (Fridays to Sundays), 6 to 10pm daily

Price: $58 for Friday to Sunday lunch, dinner from Mondays to Thursdays; $68 for dinner (Fridays to Sundays)

What: More than 35 dishes including Italian, Japanese, Indian, Middle Eastern, Thai and plant-based options and local favourites. 

SEOUL GARDEN 


PHOTO: SEOUL GARDEN

Where: Seven Seoul Garden outlets. Go to seoulgarden.com.sg for addresses and reservation numbers

Buffet hours: 11.30am to 3.59pm (Saturdays and Sundays), 4 to 10.30pm daily. Diners have to finish within two hours.

Price: $25 for lunch on Saturdays and Sundays, and dinner on Mondays to Thursdays; $28 for dinner on Fridays to Sundays, eves of and on public holidays. Children pay half-price.

What: Selection of halal meats, seafood and vegetables for table-top grilling. 

COLONY 


PHOTO: THE RITZ-CARLTON, MILLENIA

Where: The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore, 7 Raffles Avenue, tel: 6434-5288

Buffet hours: 6.30 to 10.30pm (Fridays and Saturdays), noon to 3pm (Sundays)

Price: $96 for an adult, $48 for a child for dinner; from $178 for Sunday brunch with Champagne Barons de Rothschild Reserve Ritz Brut NV, house-pour red and white wines, a curated selection craft beers, soft drinks and fruit juices.

What: Seafood dinner includes Fisherman’s Catch seafood platter, sashimi platter, Boston lobster with Chardonnay nage and lobster linguine aglio olio. Champagne brunch highlights include lobster eggs benedict with butter brioche, slow-baked onyx beef tomahawk with Yorkshire pudding and roasted pork shoulder porchetta.  

ORCHARD CAFE 


PHOTO: ORCHARD HOTEL

Where: Orchard Hotel Singapore, 442 Orchard Road, tel: 6739-6565

Buffet hours: Noon to 2.30pm, 3 to 5pm (Saturdays and Sundays); 6 to 10pm (Fridays to Sundays)

Price: $48 for lunch; $42 for high tea; $78 for dinner

What: The number of items has increased by about 20 per cent with dishes such as wok-fried tiger prawn with premium salted egg yolk sauce, signature laksa noodles with fresh cockles and wagyu ribeye steak. New items include freshly made thosai masala and durian Basque burnt cheesecake. 

BEACH ROAD KITCHEN 


PHOTO: WONG AH YOKE

Where: JW Marriott Singapore, South Beach, 30 Beach Road, tel: 6818-1913

Buffet hours: Noon to 2pm (Saturdays), noon to 3pm (Sundays), 6 to 9pm (Fridays to Sundays)

Price: $68 for lunch; $88 for dinner; $108 for brunch

What: More than 40 made-to-order international and local dishes such as cold seafood, truffle mushroom pizza, salt-baked barramundi, laksa lobster and chilli crab with mantou. Sunday brunch includes items such as sous-vide egg with shaved truffle.  

KINTAMANI 


PHOTO: KINTAMANI

Where: 405 Havelock Road, Level 3, tel: 6739-6463

Buffet hours: Noon to 2.30pm, 6 to 10.30pm daily

Price: $19.90 (adult), $10 (child)

What: More than 20 Indonesian dishes, such as seafood salad, deep-fried cereal prawns, Balinese clear chicken soup, fried golden chicken and mee goreng.  

TRIPLE THREE


PHOTO: MANDARIN ORCHARD

Where: Level 5 @ Mandarin Orchard Singapore, 333 Orchard Road, tel: 6831-6271

Buffet hours: Noon to 3pm on weekends, 6.30 to 10pm daily

Price: $78 for lunch; $118 for Sunday lunch; $108 for dinner

What: International dishes with different highlights on certain days such as Foie Gras Mondays and Tuesdays, Kumamoto Wagyu Wednesdays and Thursdays and Lobster Fridays and Saturdays. Sundays feature free-flow beer. 

STRAITS KITCHEN 


PHOTO: SINGAPORE GRAND HYATT SINGAPORE

Where: Grand Hyatt Singapore, 10 Scotts Road, tel: 6732-1234

Buffet hours: Noon to 2.30pm, 3 to 5pm, 6 to 10pm daily

Price: $58 for lunch ($29 for child); $35 for tea ($18 for child); $69 for dinner ($37 for child)

What: Selection of halal Asian dishes including Malay, Chinese and Indian items.  

Correction note: This article has been edited for accuracy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 26, 2020, with the headline 'Buffets in the new normal '. Print Edition | Subscribe